DES MOINES, Iowa – After beating cancer survivors find out life is different, and that can be a difficult adjustment.

“It’s not just about killing cancer cells,” Dr. Richard Deming, medical director of the MercyOne Richard Deming Cancer Center, said. “It’s about taking care of the patient and their family every step along the way, including after the treatment is over.”

And that step often happens outside the hospital.

“So generally, it’s okay, we cured your breast cancer go on with your life,” Dr. Deming said, “but their life has been changed.”

As the medical director, Dr. Deming sees the many ways cancer changes people. 

“Physical, psychosocial, emotional, financial, spiritual, philosophical, sexual issues as a consequence of their cancer diagnosis and their cancer treatment,” Dr. Deming said.

That consequence can be hard to live with, which is why Dr. Deming started a non-profit to help survivors answer: “How do you take a bump in the road of life and use it as a springboard to better living as opposed to a barrier to move forward?”

Above + Beyond Cancer offers free fitness, nutrition, and wellness programs to help survivors gain healthy habits, recover, and prevent disease.

It began back in 2011 when a team of cancer survivors went to Mount Everest Base Camp. Mary Van Heukelom helped lead that original team.

“When I first started training the team of cancer survivors, I immediately realized how unique that environment was,” Van Heukelom said. “You feel an immediate energy and raw connection and you can witness that amongst cancer survivors. It’s like barriers completely come down and everyone’s true and authentic self is able to bubble up and with that when you want in that environment. There’s nothing but growth.”

That growth gave Mary a new role. She was offered to be the program director at Above + Beyond. Her job is to help people after they survive cancer by connecting them to different programs.

She even leads some of the classes, but she never expected what she did for work would become what she had to face in life.

“Soon after I turned 50, I was diagnosed with colon cancer and that was cured after surgery,” Van Heukelom said. “And about 13 months after that I was diagnosed with breast cancer.”

In the last year, she completed seven months of chemotherapy infusions and is now recovering from a bilateral mastectomy surgery without reconstruction. Treatments and procedures she’s seen others go through, but now had to endure herself.

“As much as I felt connected to my fellow cancer survivors…with my diagnosis that magnified by 100,” Van Heukelom said.

The diagnosis deepened those connections, but it was her work that gave her the purpose to keep going and keep smiling.

“There were multiple times within my journey, it usually happened a few days after treatment, that I would say to myself, ‘I don’t know how I can get out of bed today. I’m so tired.’ But because I had something that people were expecting me to be there, I willed myself to go,” Van Heukelom said. 

And she’s glad she did. A chapter in life that challenged her and changed her.

“Nobody wants a cancer diagnosis to put the pedal down on more compassion and resiliency and hope. But again, this is life,” Van Heukelom said. “Cancer or not we have adversities that with reflection, you can grow with that and through it.”

To learn more about Above + Beyond Cancer, click here.